Saturday, March 08, 2014

Review: Gift of Faith

Robert Fleming's new book Gift of Faith is the first in a series to be published by Urban Christian. It is also his first foray into Christian fiction publishing. As, such, it is quite unlike the other novels he has written in the past. Gift of Faith tells the story of a pastor who suffers a terrible tragedy at the hands of his wife. The question the pastor is left with is: What kind of woman would do such a thing? The narrative follows the pastor as he discovers the true nature of his now dead wife, grieves for his wife and his dead children, comes to grips with his own encounters with human evil, and is slowly restored to hope and faith as he starts a new life.

Throughout the novel, one encounters evil in its many guises, especially the evil that appears in the urban Black community. Thus the pastor understands evil through looking at his own tragedy but also through his ministry in the Black Church. The book is unflinching in its depiction of sexual sins and the temptations and sins that beset those in the religious community.Time and time again, he counsels (or tries to counsel) the grieving, the sinful, the addicted, the obsessed, and begins to understand the subtle interweavings of evil, mental illness, neediness, sin and the plainly demonic.
Gift of Faith is a good book, but it is not excellent —and it does not compare well with Mr Fleming’s secular works.  There are several flaws that will trouble or distance the nonreader of Christian fiction, and there is one issue that Christians who read Christian fiction might argue with theologically or doctrinally.

The first flaw is that the novel is told in the first person. While Christian memoirs and testimonies are generally taken at face value, a work of fiction needs to have the ability to convince most of its readers. Readers of Christian fiction will readily accept a narrator speaking of his humility and holiness but those not used to this genre would be more convinced if the story had been told to a third person narrator. Because of the first person narrator, the hero’s goodness and self-praise is not easily proven or acceptable. Moreover, many discoveries made by the hero seem as if written to show his own righteousness, thus the story’s climax is challenged by a seemingly unaware and proud hero. A story about a good person is rarely told well from the first person’s (the selfsame good person’s) point of view.
For instance, lines such as, “The congregation was hanging on my every word, my every indictment of them” can be problematical.
The second flaw (and again this is a flaw that would trouble only those who are not readers of Christian fiction), is that the author shows moral growth instead of emotional growth. Indeed, there is often a preachiness that —while acceptable and even expected in Christian fiction— makes the narrator hero appear coldly detached in spite of all his declarations of grief. One expects to see the narrator walking through his empty house missing his murdered children but no such events or scenes is given the reader.
Instead, the author brings in several situations and characters to illustrate the moral quandaries that Christians —especially pastors— often face. As a pastor, it is understandable that these encounters would occur and that they would affect his theology and his recovery. The emotional arc is quickly swallowed up by the moral arc, and because the narrator already knows the spiritual answers to life, there is no emotional hook to draw us through to the novel. One moves from spiritual insight to spiritual insight, from moral lecture to moral lecture and in the end, the only answer the pastor finds are answers that show how evil his wife was and how good, holy and trusting he was. Because of this the book not only feels disjointed but one almost begins to feel that the wife was trapped in a marriage with a cold pious man with no heart. The author does not seem to be aware of this pitfall, which makes the read an uncomfortable one.

Again, these are problems that would only trouble those who are not used to Christian fiction. However, there are some moments that will trouble some readers of Christian fiction. Some readers may not like the honest brave description of sexuality and sexual situations. Urban Christian books, written by Black Christians, are often different than Christian fiction published by mainstream Christian publishers such as Bethany and Thomas Nelson. Thus readers of urban Christian fictions will not be too surprised or offended at the truth in many of these scenes.

However, some Christians — Black or White— might have a problem with a kind of fatalistic Calvinism that appears throughout the book, as evidenced in the following line:

Mr Burke realized his fate was sealed. He knew he was going to get a harsh sentence for killing the woman, a wife and a mother of a young child. The elders often told me that we are destined to fail during this life, that we cannot always measure up to the standard set by the Lord. I know this is true. We all know that. We are all sinners.
The apparent theological reasoning behind this is to show human imperfection and the inability for anyone to live a truly perfect life. It also  seems to show a compassion for human failure. But the words “fate” and “destined” so close together hint at a deeper Calvinist idea which the writer may or may not intend.
If one looks at the Bible, this seemingly compassionate idea of being destined to fail comes off as merely human sentimentality. For the Bible declares:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: Ephesians 4:11-15
And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; Colossians 1:21-23
The Holy Scripture in Scripture commands that we not allow ourselves to be moved away from the hope of the gospel
Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:  Colossians 1: 25-28
Indeed, Christians are called to be conformed to Christ:
My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, Galatians 4:19
This book has been accepted in many Christian bookclubs, including Urban Christian His Glory Book Club. It will no doubt speak to many who have suffered family tragedy. It will also be enjoyed by pastors, deacons and elders, because it shows the trials they encounter in their work. I recommend this book for those who are used to reading urban Christian. fiction. For those who are not used to reading such books, I would recommend reading Mr. Fleming's other books such as Fever in the Blood and Wisdom of the Elders, books which show the excellency of Mr Fleming’s skills at honestly depicting the problems and wisdom of the Black community. I look forward to seeing how Mr Fleming will merge the honest searing skill of his secular work with the requirements of the Christian genre. I have no doubt his next book in this series will be a better read.
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